CNN may equal politics, but what if had to face competition from none other than the Worldwide Leader in Sports? Imagine: Rather than sticking to the dry and wonkish standards of its cable news rivals, ESPN inaugurated a Ballot Bowl 2008 that promised to make an actual sport of the presidential campaign, from Super Tuesday II to the Big Game in November.
ESPN’s hypothetical plan for Ballot Bowl would be a hybrid between a traditional summer sport like baseball and the gritty pugnacity of boxing. The regular season — “ESPN’s Race for the Nomination” — would culminate with conference conventions in the summer, while the playoffs extended from mid-July through the fall. Scoring would be different from past campaigns, however. Although focus groups might complain if ESPN tried to dispose of elections and caucuses because they couldn’t be televised, these traditional forms of civic participation would only represent half of the contest. Instead, ESPN plans to award its own points to candidates based not on their policy proposals nor even their lead in delegates, but rather on cheap shots, defense and semantic knockdowns.
ESPN expects that moving the arena from the booth to the ring will increase interest in the quadrennially lagging sport of political hardball. Campaign managers, like all good promoters, will now be responsible for pre-game mudslinging, hatchet grinding and other dirty tricks, for which ESPN will accordingly allocate points. Applied to last week’s scenario, as Sen. Barack Obama was weighing in before the Buckeye Brawl against Sen. Hillary Clinton, one judge would have awarded the Obama campaign five superdelegates for its spokesman’s contention that Clinton “engaged in the most shameful, offensive fear-mongering we’ve seen from either party in this election.” When Clinton spokesman Phil Singer replied, however, that “the vetting process of Sen. Obama … has been woefully inadequate, in my view,” ESPN might have actually docked superdelegates from the Clinton campaign for its feeble delivery.
Of course, ESPN’s anchors are never ones to shy away from a contest themselves. Rather than sponsor mundane “conversations” like the other networks, ESPN plans to inject its commentators as actual referees. One spokesman says they’ll still provide tables and lecterns for atmosphere, but ESPN anchors will be responsible for calling fouls, awarding points and responding to candidate challenges with instant replays of their past speeches. At the end of each bout, the anchors then plan to declare a winner and predict how it will affect the contenders’ overall playoff positions. Perhaps in anticipation of this new layout, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell commented after last week’s performance, “Even though it was a low-scoring debate, I thought that Hillary Clinton achieved her purpose, to an extent, of saying: ‘I am a fighter.’ Repeatedly: ‘I am a fighter.’ ”
While some of the candidates might find this kind of refereeing unfair, ESPN promises that it will at least be entertaining, especially in contrast to the CNN-sponsored Texas Showdown last week. As one analyst noted, most viewers were upset that the candidates spent most of the 90 minutes nitpicking about policy distinctions, not to mention their ire over the proceeding’s civility.
Under ESPN’s coverage, this kind of moderator-coddling and policy discussion will go on no longer. And the new rhetoric among other networks and news organizations about the campaign might reflect a general consensus — summed up by a remark written last year by Sen. Obama — that “it’s not enough to just change the players. We have to change the game.” The New York Daily News, for example, referred to Tuesday’s fight as a “slugfest” in which “Feisty Hil pound[ed] Barack but [couldn’t] shake his cool.” Newsweek’s Howard Fineman recalled Ali versus Frazier, reporting that Clinton “complained about the referees, [then] charged ahead as she had to do. She devastated [Obama] with a few power punches — but not enough of them — and didn’t level him.” Apparently confused about the sport he was watching, Salon.com’s Mike Madden noted that Hillary didn’t complete the “Hail Mary” she was looking for. And The New York Times reported of Clinton that, “For a candidate on an 11-game losing streak, a break in the action [offered] a moment for an exhausted team to regroup and to refocus a strategy that hasn’t worked.”
ESPN expects the change in format to have positive consequences for the electorate. The fact that more Americans know the starting quarterback for the Detroit Lions than the starting chairperson for the Senate Armed Services Committee might mean that sport is the only metaphor the citizenry can handle. “People want to put an end to squabbling, want to put an end to bickering,” Democratic strategist David Wilhelm lamented last week. “How, in that context, do you change the dynamic of this race?” Well, giving up all pretenses and turning debates into actual mud-slinging contests — complete with gloves and Nike-swooshed aprons — might be a good place to start.
Perhaps, however, the Worldwide Leader in Sports has no place covering the campaign. Maybe Americans do want to hear the candidates contrast the finer points of their websites, answer questions relayed directly through YouTube and propose policy instead of pander to the press. But until ESPN does decide to broadcast its own color commentary, I guess we’re stuck with watching the Thrilla in, well, Shaker Heights — on MSNBC.
Niko Bowie is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Fridays.